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University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation

The Insidious Political Consequences of Cyberattacks

September 13, 2022
Ryan Shandler, Gal Dor, and Daphna Canetti

Blog

In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Ryan Shandler, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford, Gal Dor, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Haifa, and Daphna Canetti, professor of political psychology at the University of Haifa, analyze cyberattacks’ political consequences: loss of public trust in the government, demands for military intervention, and support for the loss of civil liberties.

In the summer of 2022, the FBI proudly announced that it had thwarted a cyberattack against a hospital in Boston. The announcement was a cause for celebration. The attack had failed to elicit any meaningful consequences. Equipment and networks were not damaged. Neither health data nor funds were stolen. Lives were not lost. By every metric, the attack caused no damage. Or so it seemed.

Like a predictable twist in an action movie, the real danger remained unseen. A fixation on a subset of high visibility consequences—degraded hardware, pilfered funds, stolen data, and fatalities—obscured a more insidious threat. If you look beyond the first order consequences, the hidden threat of cyberattacks is that they can undermine societal cohesion, diminish trust in government, traumatize the public, and encourage violent and isolationist worldviews. Even with the strongest cybersecurity software, democratic societies remain vulnerable.

Our research group has been exploring the subtle political effects of cyberattacks by running dozens of experiments that directly expose people to cyber operations under strictly controlled settings. The studies involved some 10,000 respondents in four countries—the US, England, Israel, and Germany.

In one study, we surveyed the public after a seemingly “failed” ransomware attack on a Dusseldorf hospital in Germany. Similar to the Boston attack, the authorities congratulated themselves on a job well done due to the absence of any lasting physical damage. Yet we found a precipitous and enduring reduction in the public’s trust in government. The authorities’ preoccupation with physical consequences obscured the fact that the attack had provoked a deep anxiety among voters at the authorities’ inability to protect them.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance